Ciampi A Talented Coach And A Special Person

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the 25-year coach tenure of Auburn's Joe Ciampi.

In the past 25 years of covering Auburn athletics, I have dealt with seven presidents, four athletic directors, five head football coaches, three men's basketball coaches.

And one women's basketball coach.

Through all the changes, the good times and the turmoil, the one constant in the Auburn athletics program for a quarter of a century has been Joe Ciampi. He's gone about his business of winning and teaching without a hint of scandal.

Ciampi's accomplishments as Auburn's women's basketball coach are well-known--three trips to the national championship game, 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, 10 trips to the Sweet 16, a WNIT championship, three SEC regular-season championships, four SEC Tournament championships. He took over an obscure program in 1979 and built it into a national powerhouse, never having a losing season.

Ciampi (on left) is shown with his 26-7 1980-81 team, which won the SEC Tournament. The next year the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament started and Ciampi's club made the field.

Thursday, Ciampi decided that it was time to move on, time to spend more time with his wife, Laureen, and their four children and two grandchildren. It was an emotional day for all those who know him well.

Someone else will take over as Auburn's coach. Because of what Ciampi built, the next coach will have an opportunity to compete with the best on a national level.

A 23rd banner will be hung in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, this one honoring this season's trip to the NCAA Tournament. But the real story of Joe Ciampi isn't told by the banners, by the championships or by more than 600 wins as a coach in 27 seasons. The real story of Joe Ciampi is about people.

Talk to those who played for him, and they don't talk so much about matchup zone defenses or his well-known drive to win. They talk about a man who cared, who did things for people that nobody will ever know about. They talk about loyalty and commitment to doing the right things. They talk about a man who reached out to them in times of trouble.

Spend time with Ciampi and you'll laugh a lot. He has an uncommon knack for making people around him feel good. He revels in his Italian heritage. Last week, in Stamford, Conn., Ciampi found an Italian restaurant. He quickly made friends with the owner, a fellow named Vinnie. After going there on Saturday night, he vowed he would return if Auburn beat North Carolina State. Sure enough, Ciampi took his team, the Auburn traveling party and numerous friends back on Monday night. Vinnie went Tuesday to cheer for the Tigers against UConn.

Since last summer, Ciampi has been contemplating making this season his last. He still loves to teach, but the day-to-day burden that goes with being a head coach at the highest level was getting heavy. Ciampi decided for good on Wednesday night that it was time to turn more attention to the family that had supported him so long.

Joe Ciampi coached two years at Army and nine years in high school in New York and Pennsylvania before coming to AU.

It would have been a wonderful story if he could have gone out with one more run deep into the NCAA Tournament. It might have happened had it not been for the indefensible decision by the NCAA selection committee to make the Tigers, third-place finishers in the SEC, a No. 7 seed and send them to play UConn in a virtual home game.

But that's a side issue. What Ciampi is about is the hundreds of young women who came his way and were better for it, who became doctors, lawyers and generally successful people. He loved them all, and they loved him in return.

I've had literally hundreds of conversations with Ciampi, some about basketball and some about life. It was my good fortune to be there in Connecticut when he took his team to play for the last time.

Maybe it sounds corny to say, but it's true. Joe Ciampi is a great basketball coach. He's a better human being. He will go on from here and be successful in whatever he does. He'll still have an impact on people's lives.

All of us who know Joe Ciampi well are better for it. I'm proud to call him my friend.

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